Designer has success on epic sets, says Barney McDonald

Back in the mid-2000s I bumped into Elysium production designer Philip Ivey in Dunedin.

We knew each other from Auckland and both had some time to spare, so he drove me out to the location where they were filming Out of the Blue, just a few minutes' drive from Aramoana, where David Gray massacred 13 people in 1990. It was a surreal place to visit, especially when a retired couple with their dog strolled past, completely unfazed by this recreation of a very dark day in New Zealand's history.

For Ivey, too, it was just another day at the office; simply a new chapter in a burgeoning career that began in the mid-1990s working in the art department of Xena: Warrior Princess. The Auckland father of three then graduated to art director on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy before truly making his mark on Neill Blomkamp's South Africa-set sci-fi drama District 9, produced by Jackson.

With the unbridled success of that collaboration, Blomkamp inevitably hired Ivey to collaborate on his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Elysium, a movie as grandiose and epic as it is decrepit and raw.


"The look of the film wasn't based on any one thing in particular," Ivey explains. "It was just the idea of trying to make it look as realistic as possible and to over-emphasise the gulf between the poor and the wealthy. It conveys the feeling that life on Earth has completely slid into absolute poverty and technology hasn't progressed from what we know now, while the wealthy live in luxury in the ultimate gated community with the best health care available. The earth has been sucked dry with all the wealth moving off-planet."

Ivey and Blomkamp began conceptualising the look of the film in March 2010, when the director was in the early stages of writing the script. Originally set in Rio de Janeiro, Blomkamp proposed going back to Johannesburg, where District 9 was set, before Ivey convinced him that Mexico City had the gargantuan rubbish dumps and Mexican inhabitants required to represent post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.

"I think Neill is a little obsessed with poverty and people living in landfills," admits Ivey.

"The joke at the end of District 9 was where we would shoot next. Sao Paulo came up at one point. We almost went to the favelas of Rio but settled on the slums of Mexico City. Concentration of wealth and the rise of poverty are fairly hot topics right now."

Although the film lost some of the edge of the story in the telling, Ivey is adamant that they worked tirelessly to create two believable contrasting worlds - Elysium and Earth - and a sci-fi film that wasn't in awe of itself or other films in the genre.

"Neill is a very visual filmmaker, loves the design process and likes to have a team of illustrators working as he writes so he can visualise the script as it develops," says Ivey.

"We ended up with over 3000 illustrations, of which only 150 were relevant by the time we started shooting. But you can track the development of the story through those images."

Steering clear of the visual style of other similar movies was as easy as ignoring them, with Blomkamp and Ivey instead embracing the gritty realism of non-sci-fi films like The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now and City of God without consciously replicating them.


"I don't think we went into this film looking over our shoulder at what other films might be offering as a look," insists Ivey. "We just moved ahead with what we felt was appropriate for the film and the feeling we were trying to convey. A lot of films today look as though they were designed by Apple, especially sci-fi. Our team tends to adhere to the "form follows function" theme; no over design to distract the audience from the story. It's important to treat the sci-fi as a backdrop. Story is key."

Ivey's story is as remarkable as Elysium's, minus the spectacular sets, millions of dollars, Hollywood lifestyle or anything approaching an apocalypse, with the exception of the house he bought then demolished beside his humble Grey Lynn home. He has resolutely worked his way into a position where he's production designing films starring the likes of Matt Damon and Jodie Foster while happily being based with his family in Auckland, with the exception of a few months when he relocated to Vancouver with partner Michelle Dowd and the kids during studio work on Elysium.

"Projects like this are long enough in duration that it makes sense to take the family," he says. "The kids get a life experience and I get to maintain some sanity by having my family with me. We've thought about relocating to a city closer to the major filmmaking countries, but the reality of making films these days is that they're made all around the world. Wherever you live is probably not going to be where you work. Better to stay where you prefer to live, near friends and family. Besides, there's nowhere better than New Zealand!"

Elysium is in cinemas now.